A Town Well Planned: Zoning with Context

This article is part of a series in which Strong Towns member and contributor Alexander Dukes proposes a “Civic Development System” whose regulations are split into three core mechanisms: Master Street Plans, Land Use Zoning, and Form Plans. We hope it serves as valuable inspiration when thinking about design options for your own neighborhood.

Read previous articles in this series:

  1. Introduction to a Town Well Planned
  2. Determining Public Will
  3. Parcels and Master Street Plans
  4. Street Design
  5. Hierarchical Zoning

The concept of land use zoning is intended to prevent the various land uses from interfering with one another. There are three factors that determine whether a particular use of land is going to be harmonious and inoffensive to the public’s sensibilities: (1) The land use type, (2) the intensity of that land use, and (3) its geographic context. This article will focus on understanding the geographic context of the hierarchical land use regulations discussed in the previous article. To see how these regulations can be used in practice, a hierarchical zoning scheme will be applied to the Auburn Mall site, which I have previously platted and prepared street designs for.


A theoretical basis to govern the application of a zoning code to the land is required to effectively regulate land use in a municipality. Contemporary zoning theories are often intended (consciously or not) to support our national system of development financing, where tracts of coarse-grained land uses  are “bundled” by banks into generic loans. Shares of these loans are then sold to blind investors all over the country who have no connection to the land they own.

To pitch these generic loans to blind investors, the local zoning system must be blunt and lack geographic context. In part, this is why municipalities have largely given up master street planning and only zone commercial land on arterial roads. Developers are then allowed to design whatever residential space they want to feed those arterials. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, where perpetually increasing amounts of residential land are required to feed the arterial’s commercial appetite.

At Strong Towns, we believe in the traditional development pattern where blocks and parcels are financed locally. A traditional pattern of development requires zoning that is fine-grained and geographically contextual to civic amenities and land features. To achieve that, we need a theoretical basis for zoning that is responsive to observable feedback.

Municipal and Neighborhood Transects

An urban transect is a conceptual means of understanding the built environment in a town or city. Urban transect theory posits that urban development intensity will broadly rise as you move from the outskirts of a town into its downtown core. If one were to graph a municipality’s level of built intensity from its downtown core to its hinterlands, the line would broadly start at a peak (the downtown) and bend down toward zero (the hinterland). This is how transect theory is generally understood.

Though it is a good basis from which to start, I find even this theory too simplistic because it ignores the hyper-locality of urban neighborhoods. Most cities don’t follow a linear declination from their center out to hinterland. In-between the peak and the zero, there should be many smaller hills and valleys to account for natural intensity fluctuations that occur where land is particularly valuable. Where these hills and valleys occur on the graph would also depend greatly on which streets you were measuring.

This reality of an inconsistent transect gradient requires a conceptual separation of the larger municipal transect from the smaller neighborhood transects. This conceptual separation is illustrated below for the Auburn Mall site’s relationship to the City of Auburn:


In the diagram above, the graph follows a common route people take from downtown Auburn to the Auburn Mall. There are four significant intersections along this path, and the mall lies on the busiest single intersection of the four (collectively, downtown Auburn is busier). This intersection is where Opelika Road crosses University Drive. Each of these intersections can be considered the physical manifestation of a neighborhood transect peak, and a potential “town center” for a neighborhood.

Until recently, the city ignored these signals and applied coarse zoning based on arterial routes. This zoning paradigm completely separated residential areas from commercial areas. The Auburn Mall is a perfect example of this separation: People only enter the mall to shop, and typically get there by driving on one of two arterial routes. The fact that the mall is only used for shopping reinforces this status quo daily.

Let’s see what we can do when we take the land the mall consumes and zone it to be a place where people can live, work, shop, and play. My objective with this zoning code application is to transform the Auburn Mall site into a cohesive community that serves as a town center for its neighborhood.

Zoning the Auburn Mall Site

In applying the hierarchical zoning code to the Auburn Mall site, I have tried to give land owners the greatest amount of freedom possible while still providing the neighborhood with some intentionality. While the master street plan that forms the streets and blocks is fairly prescriptive, I think the zoning code and its application to the land can be considered a significant expansion of individual rights compared to other zoning systems.   

University Drive is the north-south road on the western side of the site. Opelika Road is the east-west road on the southern side of the site.

University Drive is the north-south road on the western side of the site. Opelika Road is the east-west road on the southern side of the site.


Let’s begin at the arterial intersection that makes all of this possible. Opelika Road and University Drive are attractive to commercial developers because they handle a great deal of traffic. If this community were developed as platted, merchants would compete furiously along the arterials to peel hurried pedestrians off the sidewalks and errand-running drivers from the roadways. Multistory mixed use buildings with homes above offices and restaurants would thrive here. Therefore, I gave land along the main thoroughfares the highest intensity zoning the community has to offer.

Zoning intensity decreases beyond the first ring of parcels. Mercantile and office land uses will consume less space than those on the exterior, while fewer people would be on the street hustling to their next appointment or running errands. This space is intended for people to linger and enjoy the pleasantness of each-other’s company. I use this intensity declination to transition the community from its public face (the exterior on Opelika Road and University) to its more private heart.

In the center of the community, you reach the heart. Here, children could play soccer in the park while their parents observe from their porches and balconies. Land zoned to be exclusively residential bounds every end of the park except its southern edge. Because the park is the “heart” of the community, I felt it needed to have a good number of single family homes and apartments to buttress it against the interior boulevard lined with retail and office land uses.

The northeastern, curved edge of the Mall site is zoned to accommodate industrial land uses. Because the industrial block of the community faces an undeveloped crop of trees, relatively few parcels will be harmed by the nuisances generated by industries. Perhaps local shops, manufacturers, and homeowners could use this land to form a communal live-work space for small business owners, artists, and professionals.

Working in concert with the master street plan’s arrangement of the land, the hierarchical zoning code can be used to design a neighborhood town center where people live, work, shop, and play. The Auburn Mall case study demonstrates that all of these various land uses and activities can be comfortably compressed within a place that is just a little more than a quarter mile wide. Imagine what we would see if the whole city embraced master street planning to arrange the land, and hierarchical zoning based on transects to define land use.

Conclusion and Discussion

Please remember, this zoning code is hierarchical. Any land use that is less intense or less sensitive than what a given parcel is zoned for can occur on that parcel. For example: although most land in the Mall site is zoned to accommodate merchant land uses, office and residential land uses that are at or below a merchant parcel’s zoned intensity can occur on that parcel. Additionally, multiple land uses can be combined on one parcel. (Please read the previous article in the series for more information on how this hierarchical zoning system works.)

The traditional pattern of development requires that our neighborhoods be built incrementally, step by step, with local financing. It is through that process that we achieve the beautiful mosaics of buildings and fine-grained land uses that define the great cities of the world.

The beauty of this hierarchical zoning system is that it permits this under-utilization of zoned land without issue. This frees the planner and residents from having to guess at what specific land uses should be in allowed in a place, and instead focuses their attention on the cohesive whole a place can be. In a properly applied hierarchical zoning code, the market is given the headroom to decide what level of development is appropriate for each parcel.

When the Mall site initially starts redeveloping, most buildings on its edges will only rise to one story. This is well below the potential the land is zoned for. Some structures may even be single family homes. That’s okay too. The traditional pattern of development requires that our neighborhoods be built incrementally, step by step, with local financing. It is through that process that we achieve the beautiful mosaics of buildings and fine-grained land uses that define the great cities of the world.

Even with the master street plan and zoning plans complete, there are still a few problems that need to be addressed on the Mall site. Which way should buildings face? How does the city ensure consistent setback distances to prevent recesses and dead-end alleys along streets? Can developers build infinitely high, or will there be height limits? Are landowners allowed to build across parcels?

These are questions that need answers. Solutions to them will be discussed in the final quarter of this series. Over the next two months, we will discuss form codes and plans for the Auburn Mall site.

Read the next article in this series: "Universal Form Codes."

(All illustrations by the author unless otherwise noted.)

More from this series: